Austin Grabish

Making things right

First Pride divides community in Manitoba’s Bible Belt

Homosexual sin ‘disgusts me,’ says one Steinbach local, as others prepare for historic march

Michelle McHale is organizing Steinbach’s first Pride march on July 9, 2016. Many in Steinbach, a staunchly Conservative and predominately Mennonite city, are opposed to homosexuality. (Austin Grabish/Daily Xtra)
 Gay history is expected to be made this weekend in the Bible Belt of Manitoba.

Steinbach, Manitoba’s third largest city, is gearing up for its very first Pride march and the celebration is already rife with controversy.

The march, scheduled to take place Saturday, July 9, 2016, is the result of a long-fought battle in the predominantly Mennonite community.

Organizer Michelle McHale doesn’t think it will become violent but says to expect resistance.

I do expect protesters. I expect that to happen just given some of the things that we’ve heard,” she says.

“It’s all kind of surreal,” she adds of the parade she never thought would come to Steinbach.

The battle to this point

The battle over LGBT rights in Steinbach boiled over this spring after school board trustees bristled first at McHale’s request, then at a student’s request to revise their guidelines prohibiting discussion of LGBT issues until high school.

Steinbach’s newspaper the Carillon reported that trustee Lynn Barkman opposed introducing LGBT issues in middle school because, she believes, students are not equipped to understand the complexities of sexuality.

Teachers, students and parents in the district “know that our culture is changing,” she said according to the Carillon, but “that does not suggest that we should abandon truth.”

Barkman, who is a nurse, then linked the rise of sex education in Toronto to a heightened risk of cancer, the Carillon reported.

“I just feel that there is enough cancer around and the increase in cancer is phenomenal,” she said.

Carillon reporter Ian Froese told Daily Xtra some applauded after Barkman made the comment.

“I thought it was one of the loudest cheers any trustee got,” Froese said in a message.

McHale and her partner, who left Steinbach in May, have now filed a human rights complaint against the Hanover School Division for its ongoing refusal to allow classroom discussions of LGBT issues until high school due to their “sensitive” nature.

(Michelle McHale left Steinbach after facing backlash for her attempt to bring LGBT issues into school curriculum. She says her son was also bullied for having two moms./Austin Grabish/Daily Xtra)

School board confrontation only the latest

In 2003, a federal committee visited Steinbach to talk about legalizing same-sex marriage. Those vehemently opposed to homosexuality came out in droves to voice their opposition to gay marriage.

Their concerns, along with gay marriage proponents’ voices, are documented in over 200 archived pages online.

The road to Pride

Proponents of Steinbach Pride have fought for months and have had to cut through bureaucratic hoops to get here.

After initially refusing to issue a permit for the Pride march, Manitoba RCMP say their commanding officer will now attend the event.

McHale says police have reassured her they’ll keep Saturday’s march safe.

She reiterates Saturday’s event is about love.

“We will not engage in protesters. That’s not what we’re there for.”

‘The politicians not showing is really disappointing’

Steinbach’s local politicians are skipping out on Saturday’s event.

The region’s Conservative MP Ted Falk says he won’t attend due to personal family values — though he initially blamed his upcoming absence on a commitment to attend a Frog Follies festival, before the festival’s organizer publicly urged him to attend Pride instead.

The area’s provincial MLA, Kelvin Goertzen, won’t attend Pride either, and has balked at media queries about his absence.

Steinbach’s mayor won’t be there either.


“The politicians not showing is really disappointing to me,” says Evan Wiens, 20.

Wiens brought Steinbach into the spotlight in 2013 when he tried to start a gay-straight alliance in the city’s high school.

He says he knows progress is being slowly made, but was still shocked to learn there’d be a Pride march in Steinbach.

“I didn’t think I would ever hear the words Steinbach Pride, at least this soon,” he says.

‘There are lots of good people there’

Wiens says it’s been touching to see public support for the march and broader LGBT acceptance.

“People always viewed me as the lone gay person in the town,” he says.

He makes a point of saying not everyone in Southeastern Manitoba is homophobic.

“At the end of the day, I don’t like to personally paint Steinbach with an ugly brush, because I know that there are lots of good people there.”

But opposition remains widespread

Those opposed to Saturday’s Pride march, and homosexuality in general, have been vocal about their outrage, often taking to social media to vent their concerns.


‘I don’t feel it’s right they push their agenda like that’

Marcy Kornelsen, 59, is one of several locals who’ve expressed outrage about the march on Facebook.

Reached by phone in Steinbach, she told Daily Xtra she would be staying far away from the march. “I’m outraged,” she says.

“I’m a Christian. I believe the Bible and the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin and so that is why I don’t agree with the promotion of it.”

Kornelsen likened gay people to thieves. “Stealing is wrong, and homosexuality is wrong. It’s all on the same page.”

“I don’t feel it’s right that they push their agenda like that.”

Asked if gay people disgust her, she had this to say:

“I don’t know if the people itself disgust me. It’s the whole idea of the homosexual sin that disgusts me.”

“That part I’m just like, ‘really how can anybody even want to do something like that?’”

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Gay Hutterite comes out after fleeing colony in rural Manitoba

Garrett Wipf says he’s not afraid to tell his story, though he expects repercussions 

Garrett Wipf, 18, fled his rural Manitoba Hutterite colony two years ago and has never moved back home. (Austin Grabish/Daily Xtra)

Growing up he’d see the pictures in the paper.

Drag queens, rainbow flags, and gay guys.

While his peers scoffed about Winnipeg Pride being in the news, Garrett Wipf thought one day “I’ll be there.”

Then last year he was.

Wipf fled his rural Manitoba Hutterite colony for Winnipeg in 2014 at age 16, and came out earlier this year as gay. He remembers the day he left like it was yesterday.

“March 23 10 o’clock in the morning I decided just to run away.”

It was the first time Wipf ever left Homewood Colony on his own. The community is located about 45 minutes away from the City of Winnipeg.

“I threw everything in garbage bags, ran to our Styrofoam factory [to meet] my friend and never looked back after that,” he says.

Wipf says he had to leave because his mother confronted him about being gay.

“It wasn’t very pleasant. She disowned me.”

“I was just in shock. I honestly just sat there and [had] questions running through my head. Who did I talk to about this?” he recalls.

‘Turn straight or you’re not my child’

He says he was scared his mom would make good on her threat to report him to the colony’s minister, who is the leader of the community.

“I know what would happen it’s very simple.”

His options: Turn straight or “you’re not my child.”

“I tried telling her it’s not an option, but she’s a very stubborn woman,” he says.

Wipf says if the matter went to the minister he would’ve been evicted from the colony.

“Just probably taken downtown [and told]: ‘walk,’” he says, throwing up his hands.

Growing up, Wipf says he quietly looked up to Kelly Hofer, another gay Hutterite from Manitoba, who broke community lines when he came out at age 19.

“I did secretly because he is probably the most hated Hutterite,” Wipf says.

(Kelly Hofer, 23, also fled his Hutterite colony in rural Manitoba. /Submitted by Kelly Hofer)

“It’s pretty gratifying to hear,” says Hofer, now 23, when reached by phone in Calgary, Alberta.

Hofer says there’s been a significant change in mindset amongst young people living in his colony.

“Not just tolerance but kind of acceptance within some people that I totally didn’t expect.”

Hofer’s story is documented in an online documentary entitled Queer Hutterite Misfit on the Colony.

Wipf is working on writing a book to tell his story, but he believes the book and this Daily Xtra article will create controversy.

“Yes, there will be,” he says, speaking firmly of possible repercussions for speaking out.

“I want them all to know that we’re not afraid to fight for other gay Hutterites,” he says.

“I’m not afraid of talking about this.”

He says his book will include a section about the depression he endured while growing up, and past suicide attempts.

“There was a couple of those.”

“Being told that it’s a sin and that it’s disgusting and that you’re going to hell for it. It does something to a younger mind.”

Wipf says that depression melted away when he left the colony and today he’s in a much better place mentally.

He says he’s adapted well to city life. Since moving to Winnipeg, he’s made friends in the gay community, gone to gay bars, and dated guys.

(Garrett Wipf now lives in Winnipeg. Here, he stands below a new part of the city’s renovated downtown convention centre on July 3, 2o16./Austin Grabish/Daily Xtra)

You wouldn’t know Wipf was a Hutterite at first glance. He’s deliberately changed his appearance to be himself. The only thing revealing his Hutterite identity is his thick Austrian accent.

There are no suspenders or black pants today. Instead, he’s wearing a long knit sweater from H&M, flip-flops, a rainbow lanyard, ripped pants and a black cross.

“It’s a little reminder of where I came from,” he says of the cross.

When Wipf fled the colony, he still had about a year and a half left of high school.

He still plans to finish school through a continuing education program and then wants to become a nurse.

Ironically he’s now working for a Winnipeg construction company run entirely by Hutterites.

“These people are educated and have experience out here. Enough to know it’s okay to be gay, and there’s no problem with it,” he says.

‘People don’t move’: Strollers vs. wheelchairs on Winnipeg Transit

Advocates say overcrowded buses and parents with strollers are leaving wheelchair users on the curb, so who should get a seat?

Posted: Jul 04, 2016 5:45 AM CT
Last Updated: Jul 04, 2016 6:07 AM CT

Libby Zdriluk, 30, says finding a spot on Winnipeg Transit is becoming harder due to crammed buses and parents with strollers taking up accessible spots.  Libby Zdriluk, 30, says finding a spot on Winnipeg Transit is becoming harder due to crammed buses and parents with strollers taking up accessible spots. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

By Austin Grabish, CBC News

People living with disabilities are calling on the City of Winnipeg to make sure they can catch a seat on the bus hassle-free.

Advocates say overcrowded buses and parents with strollers are leaving wheelchair users on the curb.

The Independent Living Resource Centre said parents with strollers are taking up accessibility spots on buses on a daily basis.

Allen Mankewich, a wheelchair user and consultant with the Independent Living Resource Centre, said it’s an issue he deals with regularly.

“I had an issue myself the other day. There was myself on the bus, one of my colleagues [and an] oversized stroller with three wheels on the bus,” Mankewich said.

Allen Mankewich Allen Mankewich, a wheelchair user and consultant with the Independent Living Resource Centre, said Winnipeg Transit should create a policy so oversized strollers don’t take wheelchair spots on Winnipeg Transit buses. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

“We basically had to play Tetris to get ourselves in and out of the bus.”

Libby Zdriluk, 30, uses a power wheelchair to get around and said she’s had to wait in frigid temperatures during the winter because strollers have taken the only space available for wheelchairs.

She wants Winnipeg Transit drivers to make sure wheelchair users get on the bus hassle- and confrontation-free.

Currently people with disabilities are being left to fend for themselves, she said.

“I just wish the drivers would automatically say ‘move over’ or ‘get off the bus for a minute,’ but they just don’t seem to do that,” she said.

The City of Winnipeg said it has decals on all of its low-floor buses to indicate designated areas for wheelchairs and strollers.

Spokeswoman Alissa Clark said drivers are trained to help passengers with wheelchairs or strollers and are supposed to ask riders without mobility issues to move if a seat is needed.

But Eva Beaudoin, 58, said it’s always a struggle finding room on the bus when there’s a stroller. She said she finds it awkward asking people to move so she can ride the bus.

“I have to practically ask for a seat and then I get a dirty look,” Beaudoin said.

“People don’t move.”

But not everyone in the disability community feels wheelchairs should be given priority over strollers.

Winnipeg disability advocate Jim Derksen said he wants the City of Winnipeg to add more flexible seating on its buses, so both wheelchairs and strollers have more room.

“I believe in universal design and don’t think our needs are any more important than parents with children,” Derksen said.

John Callahan, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, which represents Winnipeg bus drivers, said the union wants more buses put on the street to help deal with the issue.

He said drivers have raised concerns about strollers taking accessibility spots on the bus and the absence of a policy instructing drivers what to do about it.

“It’s something that’s been around for a long time, but there’s been no official stand on how to approach it,” Callahan said.

“I think they need to look real seriously at it.”

U.K. Supreme Court case

In the U.K., the battle between a wheelchair user and a bus firm has gone to the country’s Supreme Court.

Disability activist Doug Paulley took his case to a lower court in 2012 after being told he could not get on a bus when a mother with a stroller refused to move.

The Supreme Court held a hearing into the case in June and Paulley said he hopes to receive a ruling from the court in the coming months.

He said he is optimistic about the case and hopes it will end with better enforcement of the rights of people with disabilities.

“Public transport should be available for everybody,” Paulley, 38, told CBC News via Skype from Wetherby, England.

Raw sewage plagues Shoal Lake 40

Austin Grabish / For Metro                                   Kavin Redsky, a Shoal Lake contractor, takes a break from clearing garbage at Shoal Lake 40's only garbage dump. The dump is close to homes and is leaking into the community's only untreated water souce, a new report by Human Rights Watch has found.
Kavin Redsky, a Shoal Lake contractor, takes a break from clearing garbage at Shoal Lake 40’s only garbage dump. The dump is close to homes and is leaking into the community’s only untreated water source, a new report by Human Rights Watch has found.
By Austin Grabish For Metro

SHOAL LAKE, Ont. — Kavin Redsky is pushing a front-loader trying to keep garbage off the road.

Down the street, untreated raw sewage is seeping into the ground.

“This is our main road,” Redsky says. ”It’s pretty nasty eh?”

Sewage leakage on Shoal Lake 40 and the absence of clean drinking water are two of several issues documented in a 92-page report Human Rights Watch is set to release Tuesday in Toronto.

The New York-based human rights watchdog’s report titled, “Make It Safe: Canada’s Obligation to End the First Nations Water Crisis,” has found tainted water and broken septic systems are “jeopardizing” health for First Nations people living on five reserves in Ontario.

In Shoal Lake 40, families are using bleach in baths, children are growing up without clean water, and sewage is leaking into the community’s only water source, according to the report.

“The septic fields, the tanks, the pumps, everything is failing,” said Chief Erwin Redsky.

The human rights group said the federal government’s failure to provide First Nations with water and septic systems that are on par with what other Canadians enjoy is “discriminatory and violates the rights of First Nations persons to equality before the law.”

It also said the water crisis is impeding on First Nations’ cultural rights recognized by international law.

“The water crisis is the result of years of discrimination compounded by lack of accountability,” said Amanda Klasing, the Human Rights Watch researcher, who penned the report.

Shoal Lake 40, located near the Manitoba-Ontario border, was severed from the mainland a century ago during the construction of an aqueduct to carry fresh water to the City of Winnipeg.

While clean water flows into Winnipeggers’ taps, members of the First Nation have been under a boil water advisory for 18 years — an irony that has brought national attention to the issue of water access on First Nation communities.

Metro visited the reserve last week and spotted green liquid sewage dumped in grass just steps off of the community’s main road, where homes are located at the end.

Garbage left by community members, who have nowhere else to take it, was also seen floating in ditches and spread across the main road.

“It’s not pretty,” said Stewart Redsky, who is a community social worker.
Redsky said Shoal Lake 40’s sewer truck operator is embarrassed to show visitors the sewage that Metro found.

“He says himself ‘I don’t want to show anybody what we are forced to do,’’ he said.

Redsky said many visitors who come to Shoal Lake 40 come thinking the reserve’s problems have been corrected, but the community’s struggles are far from over.

“I actually get a little bit emotionally stirred up when people come in with that perception,” he said.

“It’s just the beginning.”


Kenneth Redsky, a Shoal Lake 40 sewer operator, stands next to a septic truck that collects waste in the community. The truck has been dumping raw sewage on land across the reserve, which has no working sewage plant.
Kenneth Redsky, a Shoal Lake 40 sewer operator, stands next to a septic truck that collects waste in the community. The truck has been dumping raw sewage on land across the reserve, which has no working sewage plant.
In April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent a day touring Shoal Lake, but Chief Redsky said despite the high-profile visit, nothing’s changed.

“We’re still isolated. Our road’s still not passable right now,” he said.

“We can’t dispose of our waste. We’re on this artificial island with nowhere to take it.”

But still, Redsky said he remains optimistic about his community’s plight.

The design for an all-year road dubbed ‘Freedom Road,’ which would take the community out of isolation and provide access to the reserve all year, is almost done, and construction on it could start as early as October, he said.

Currently, the only way into the community is through a barge or a deadly winter road, which has claimed the lives of band members, who have died falling through the ice.

“Everybody takes roads for granted. For us it’s life and death,” the chief said.

‘I don’t want to go home in a coffin’: Five years on, Lake St. Martin residents dying to go home

Margaret Traverse (left), 77, weeps as she offers her condolences to Edee O’Meara, whose mother Maryanne O’Meara passed away on Mother’s Day.

By Austin Grabish For Metro

Edee O’Meara stands in a hotel room preparing to say goodbye to her mom, wearing a shimmering black dress and sparkling new high heels.

Her mother Shee Sheeb, a Lake St. Martin elder, left specific instructions and a prepaid debit card for this night.

“She said make sure all my grandchildren are dressed nice.” So, her three daughters are in “pretty dresses” for the funeral.

Shee Sheeb, known only on paper as Maryanne O’Meara, died in St. Boniface Hospital on Mother’s Day. She had a heart attack in March and was suffering from anxiety. She was 68.

She is the latest band member from Lake St. Martin to die.

It’s gone now, but a portable hospital bed once filled the cramped hotel room that She Sheeb called home.

O’Meara said her mom developed stress-related illness and anxiety two years after Lake St. Martin flooded in 2011, which left the band’s 2,000 members homeless.

“She was a picture of health,” she said. “If we were not evacuated we would not be doing this right now.”

Austin Grabish / For Metro
Edee O’Meara prepares the blanket to go over her mother’s casket in the hotel room she lived in before she died. Shee Sheeb is the latest band member to pass away.

A ground-breaking ceremony was held in June of last year to symbolize the rebuilding of the community. However, hundreds are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt, and there is no firm completion date, according to the federal government.

The province is also cutting a channel from Lake St. Martin to Lake Manitoba, to help it drain more quickly in times of higher water.

In the meantime, the community is suffering dramatic losses due to suicide and to their people being exposed to higher-risk lifestyles in the city.

There’s a knock at the door. Lake St. Martin’s oldest elder Margaret Traverse, 77, arrives to offer her condolences.

Traverse lives two doors down from Shee Sheeb and is frail as she weeps. “It never used to be like this.”

Shee Sheeb’s body arrives and is waiting down the hall outside.
Women drum asking the Creator for help as the casket makes its way into the hotel’s ballroom – the same room evacuees pick up their monthly living allowance.

It becomes standing room only as hundreds come to say their goodbyes.
Standing in front of the casket, Lanna Moon, 7, stands proud and sings, “I love my granny.”

She’s so small you can’t see her at the back of the room, but her voice still manages to bring the room to tears.

“I don’t want to go home in a coffin,” said Traverse, staring ahead at Shee Sheeb’s casket.

“That’s what they all say,” a relative sitting next to Traverse replied.


‘We want to have a place that we can call home’

Little Saskatchewan flood evacuee Bertha Travers provided these photos of cherished family members. It’s been five years since she and over 400 others were flooded out of their Interlake First Nation.

Little Sask. First Nation flood evacuee not convinced new homes will be flood-proof

By Austin Grabish

Bertha Travers cherishes the memories she has of her grandchildren.

The 67-year-old smiles as she pulls out aged photos of her grandkids from a large white envelope.

Her grandkids are sitting on a slide next to a swing set in the first photo, Travers’ granddaughter is swimming in clear water in the second, and a deer is walking on crisp green grass in the third.

But the photos she’s holding in her hands are all Travers has left of these memories.

“This is my son’s yard,” Travers said. “It’s just swamp now.”

The 2011 flood evacuee from Little Saskatchewan First Nation is one of more than 400 from the reserve who have yet to return home.

“Those were the days when you were happy, when you were at home and enjoying family. The togetherness,” Travers said. “And all that is gone now.”

Travers’ home was completely destroyed in the flood and she spent five years living in hotels before finally settling in a Winnipeg home last year. 

She says her people face racism and discrimination on a regular basis in Winnipeg and culture shock has been a problem for many who had never left the reserve before.

“It’s completely alien,” she said referring to the City of Winnipeg. “They don’t have the supports that they had in terms of camaraderie with their fellow band members and that was important.”

Travers has settled in Winnipeg and found work as a mental health resource worker but even she isn’t sure if she wants to return to her First Nation.

Last year, Little Saskatchewan First Nation signed its support for a new road and 60 houses that are to be built through a cost-sharing partnership between the federal and provincial governments.

But Travers isn’t convinced the homes will be flood-proof and doesn’t want to live in a town site on swampland.

“A town site setting is only going to promote more crime,” she said. “The water is not clear. The water is contaminated and you can’t even bathe in that water.

“We want to have a place that we can call home.”

Little Saskatchewan First Nation is located nearly 300 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

 — First published in the Express Weekly News print edition April 27, 2015, p.5